Remembering Nottingham Symphony Orchestra founder Gaze Cooper
He was an important Nottingham musician and a genuine character, but today the name Walter Gaze Cooper is largely forgotten. ERIK PETERSEN met the people working to change that
Under founder and conductor Walter Gaze Cooper, Nottingham Symphony Orchestra rehearsal was not something to be taken lightly. Anyone who wasn't there, got a letter on Monday.
"And that was incredible," says Pauline Toone, "as the rehearsal was on Sunday afternoon."
Pauline, who joined the orchestra as a violinist in her early 20s and went on to spend a life in music, remembers a passionate musician, and a character.
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"He was pretty eccentric," Pauline says, "but he was a lovely man."
If you recall Gaze Cooper, you recall a man of both talent and quirks, a passionate musician and teacher whose unorthodox ways could be the stuff of stories for hours.
Of course, that's if you remember him. For the small band of fans, admirers, former pupils and musicians who do, the problem is that most people do not.
And so that small band is working to preserve the memory - and the music - of an enigmatic talent who left a lasting imprint on Nottingham.
Gaze Cooper, as he was generally known, was born in 1895, died in 1981, and lived virtually his entire life in Long Eaton. He taught at the Midland Conservatoire of Music, lectured at University College, Nottingham and in 1933, founded what would become the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra. He would conduct it for more than half a century.
Some of his compositions were performed by top orchestras across Britain and Europe - although, say contemporaries, perhaps not as many as could have been.
When he wasn't composing, performing or teaching music, his idea of light relief was amassing one of Britain's most impressive collections of Middle Eastern and Asian art and antiquities. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the famed archaeologist who was a mid-century BBC regular, more than once proclaimed on air while discussing some object or another that there are only two of its kind in the country - one at the British Museum, and one in the collection of Mr Gaze Cooper of Long Eaton.
But music fuelled Gaze's fires more than anything else.
"The thing that I gained most from him was a huge enthusiasm for music," says Pauline, who today is among those trying to preserve Gaze's works. "His enthusiasm for the music was highly contagious.
"When I first became a reasonably able player in Nottingham I was a little bit too old for the youth orchestra."
Her only other option - Walter Gaze Cooper's Nottingham Symphony.
"I didn't have a lot of confidence but I went along and said could I play, and he was incredibly welcoming.
And he introduced me to music I had never heard of before.
"That was where I cut my teeth on orchestral playing. I really loved every Sunday afternoon.
"Everything he did, he had 100 percent enthusiasm for it. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I loved every minute of it."
That enthusiasm undoubtedly helped Gaze become a prolific composer, with a CV that includes symphonies, concertos ballets, tone poems and a one-act opera. In its day his work was heard at Wigmore Hall, on the BBC and behind the Iron Curtain, where he conducted his own work and was said to have many friends in Poland and Yugoslavia. The Nottingham-born opera great Constance Shacklock sang some of his work.
And yet today, mention of his work is likely to draw blank stares, even among those who know the symphonic music of the time.
Violinist Morris Tulley, who played under Gaze in the Nottingham Symphony and later led it, remembers a fascinating man who didn't always help himself.
"He was a strange character in some ways," Morris says. "He was very protective about his compositions. He didn't like using the establishment to get (them) promoted. He was his own worst enemy. I think he thought that someone would pinch some of his ideas and melodies."
Occasionally, this resulted in behaviour that could be seen as full-blown shooting oneself in the foot. According to Morris, a friend once wrote a letter of introduction for Gaze to Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary violinist.
"He could have exploited that," Morris says, "but he thought plagiarism would set in and people would pinch (his work).
"He didn't trust the establishment in this country. He was his own worse enemy in that point of view."
But if he didn't always help himself in his musical career, he had a talent for helping others. Morris had firsthand experience of that.
They first met in 1947. Morris was training to be a piano technician at Kent and Cooper's music shop in Market Street, and Gaze had a studio there.
"I used to see him every day when he came in to spend the day teaching," Morris says.
In time, Morris became a pupil.
"I had harmony lessons from him and composition lessons," he recalls. "You'd take an exercise and he'd look at it, and out would come the red pencil.
Within a few minutes he would transform it. He had this genius for spotting errors. He had this instinct to see where you'd gone wrong. He would spend time with you, and then he would explain what he'd done and why he'd done it."
As they got to know each other, Morris also discovered a man of firmly held, wittily expressed views.
"He used to make broad, sweeping statements," Morris says. "He once said 'what ballet is to the Russians, opera is to the Italians, football is to the English.'
"He was a character. He kept his cards very close to his chest. He was obsessive about his compositions for fear of what people might do with them."
At a time when big orchestras often ruled the day, Gaze had a more do-it-yourself ethos.
And that may be why today his admirers are trying to resurrect his memory rather than simply celebrating it.
"That's why his works were not promoted," Morris says. "Sadly, since he died nothing much has happened (until) myself and one or two others got together and said look here, we should do something."
A selection of chamber music by Walter Gaze Cooper will be featured in the St Peter's Church Coffee Break Concert season. The concert will take place on Saturday, October 27 at 11am in the city centre church.
Anyone who played with or remembers Walter Gaze Cooper may contact the group preserving his memories and works via the Post. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org